Humane Education Can Happen Everywhere: An Interview with Lynne Westmoreland

Humane Education Can Happen Everywhere: An Interview with Lynne Westmoreland

Lynne Westmoreland

Introduction: Lynne Westmoreland was a professional pianist and piano instructor for over thirty years. When deciding on a meaningful path after retirement, she discovered humane education when attending the Washington, DC Green Festival and meeting Zoe Weil. Humane education represented everything Lynne had cared about her entire life, and IHE’s graduate program connected the dots between human rights, environmental sustainability, and animal protection in a way no other program did. Lynne says, “being able to educate hearts after retirement is a blessing and an honor.”

IHE: While humane education is often integrated into traditional classrooms, your path as a humane educator has been quite varied. What are some of the ways you’ve brought humane education into your work, your volunteerism, and even your everyday interactions with others.

Lynne: I began my formal study of humane education through IHE when I was in my mid-fifties. I knew that I would not be a classroom teacher as I approached turning sixty, but I also knew that humane education was something I had cared about my entire life – long before I knew there was a name for it. After graduating in 2011, I wanted to create a way to educate adults about how we can unlearn the many harmful and destructive ways in which we have been enculturated. I wanted to be a bridge between elders and their grown children and grandchildren. I wanted to do education from the top down rather than the bottom up. I feel strongly that we must educate those who already have a voice and visibility in different segments of society, and who have the financial flexibility to spend their time working for a world of justice, compassion, equity, and restoration of our beautiful planet.

The first and most logical place for me to bring humane education was to my Unitarian faith community. I was the religious education leader and could create lessons around love and respect for animals, caring for each other and for our Earth, and about radical kindness. I had conversations with our community’s children about kindness being so much more than the absence of meanness. I brought up topics – in age-appropriate ways and ensuring they and their feelings were seen and heard – that are often painful, frightening, and confusing. Together we unpacked invisible teachings about carnism, toxic competition, and conformity. 

However, it was the Lifetime Spiritual Education classes for adults that had the greatest impact on shifting perceptions and priorities for our congregation. Using tools like Northwest Earth Institute’s curricula; Joanna Macy’s The Work that Reconnects; Karen Armstrong’s Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life; and mindfulness meditation and inquiry, our congregants began to make small changes (bringing vegan dishes to the potlucks) and large changes (becoming a Green Sanctuary committed to sustainability and ecological responsibility). I also began to deliver sermons, followed by discussions, that focused on those topics that are not talked about in most circles. Now, as worship team leader, I am charged with finding ways to grow our congregation in love, service, dignity, and respect for all, and awakening to those patterns and behaviors that grow discord and unconsciousness without our informed consent. 

Finally, my facilitation of death cafes, hospice work, and training as an end-of-life doula have brought me the opportunities to have conversations about what legacy we want to leave. In these conversations people really begin to think about what has been important to them and why. They start to think about whether what was important is still important; how they want to spend their remaining time; and what values they want their final priorities to reflect. The conversations about death always come around to conversations about life and to what imprint we want to leave on others when we are gone.

IHE: What have you found to be the most effective and powerful ways to bring humane education to others, and what have been some of the outcomes of your efforts?

Lynne: Conversation and deep listening. Through the conversations I have had with people in classes I’ve taught on mindfulness, metta (loving kindness) meditation, and non-violent/compassionate communication, I’ve had the opportunity to offer ways of thinking outside of our cultural indoctrinations of conformity, competition, consumption, and numbing to the needs of all other human and non-human animals. 

In these settings, we’ve had the opportunity to become quiet enough to hear the inner voice that takes us deeper into our innate connection to each other. By watching ourselves and approaching everything with curiosity rather than pre-judgment, I’m able to invite people to consider what is kept hidden, and therefore unknown and taboo, in our culture. By allowing space for adults to examine their lifelong, unquestioned beliefs I’ve been witness to some heart-wrenching and heart-warming “aha” moments, when the realization occurs that one has been living a life designed by others that does not align with one’s deepest values and concerns. Both Unitarian congregations that I’ve been a lay leader for have moved into more awareness of issues and to more commitment to be part of the solutions.

The most powerful tool that I have found in helping myself and others examine their longings for community, authenticity, connection, and spirituality in its broadest manifestations is the ability to say “yes” to life. When we say “yes” to considering others’ opinions and needs, we have one of the most powerful tools for creating the reality that most expresses the tenderness of our hearts. When we say “yes” to ending suffering, we are immediately saying “no” to continuing it. When I say “yes” to considering others’ needs and longings as important as my own, I am then committed to respond with thoughtfulness and care rather than react with the same old incuriosity.

My participation in forums, library panels, book clubs, talks at organizations working for racial awareness and diversity training; for an end to poverty and homelessness; for animal protection; and for environmental justice have allowed me to teach beyond the specific topics to include the broader intersections of humane education. I have also met so many others who are humane educators without even knowing about that designation. I’m a member of Pachamama Alliance and participate in some of their initiatives – most recently teaching Drawdown in NY and FL. Those classes have resulted in initiatives about food, planting trees, school nutrition, and community composting.

IHE: When you meet resistance, what works to soften and transform it into openness, dialogue, and solutionary thinking and action?

Lynne: I have found that the Socratic method is the most effective tool for meeting resistance. Asking questions like “When did you first hear someone else voice that opinion?” or “How did you come to that conclusion?” or “Tell me more about why you believe that” invites people to the conversation. Questions like these allow people to examine their positions and uncover the reality that perhaps their opinions were handed down rather than arrived at through neutral consideration and thoughtfulness about “the way things have always been.”

When we tell people how they should be or what they should think we put a wall between ourselves and them. When we allow ourselves to hold space for people to be their own best teacher, we find that almost all people want a more just, compassionate, calmer world of “liberty and justice for all,” and that striving to empower all individuals to share their time, talent, gifts, and hearts results in a world where love and kindness are the default positions. 

Someone once said to me “[This retreat center] is not a place to answer all of your questions. It is a place to question all of your answers.” I have found that humane education also holds this as a central position in healing our wounded world.